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It’s Great DART is Considering Bus Rapid Transit. But, Per Usual, It’s Not Enough.

Let's show some love to the lowly DART bus.  (photo by Ethene Lin/Flickr)
Let’s show some love to the lowly DART bus. (photo by Ethene Lin/Flickr)

Last week DART finally connected its light rail system to Dallas Fort Worth International Airport. Hurray. Raise a glass. Pat yourself on the back. Finished? Okay, moving on.

Today the public transit system said it is considering another should-have-happened-years-ago option for the future: the introduction of bus rapid transit lines to connect suburbs. What’s bus rapid transit (or BRT to transit nerds), you ask? Well, it’s simply a long range bus line that pretends to function like a train, only it’s much cheaper than building rail. The buses are longer, they run in dedicated lanes or roads, and they stop at actual stations. The most famous success story for BRT is Bogotá, Columbia. You can find out more about that here.

DART’s proposed BRT line would run along the route that has been set aside for the Cotton Belt rail extension, connecting Plano and Fort Worth. DART has wanted to build that rail line for years, but it’s really expensive and it doesn’t look like funding will come through any time soon. So, why not BRT? Good idea. Do it. After all, the hub-and-spoke DART system does make regional transport impractical. Who wants to go through downtown to get from Plano to Carrollton? (See, I don’t hate suburbs. I’m thinking about you guys out there.)

But here’s my question: why stop there? Now that DART is connected to DFW Airport, it’s time for the transit authority to start rethinking its goals. As this article from a few weeks ago outlines, the next to-do list items for DART are finishing the Oak Cliff streetcar and a Blue Line extension to the UNT Dallas campus. They are worthwhile improvements (the streetcar as a development catalyst, if less than an actual transit option). But the problem is none of these things actually address Dallas’ real public transit need, namely, a public transit system that is actually useful.

What does that mean? Well, let’s dig back into this Brookings Institute study from 2011 which analyzed the public transportation systems in some 100 municipalities. Here’s something that might surprise you: according to the study, the most effective and efficient public transit systems aren’t the ones in big cities known for transit, like New York, Chicago, or San Francisco. Rather, they are systems in places that have simply figured out the best way to connect people with their places of employment using a variety of modes of transportation. The important factors are overall coverage, service frequency, and job access.

If we compare one of the best cities for public transit with Dallas we can see why DART is not a very good public transit system even though it boasts more light rail miles than anywhere else this side of Saturn. Denver, which, like Dallas, offers a mix of light rail and bus service, ranks sixth in the Brooking study while Dallas is 89th. Why? First off, Denver has really good coverage. About 84 percent of working-age residents live near a transit stop, and 98 percent of low income residents. Secondly, 47 percent of jobs in the area are reachable by transit within 90 minutes. The median wait for any rush hour transit vehicle is 8.1 minutes. Compare that to Dallas, which has only 46 percent coverage (around 71 percent for low income), 19 percent of jobs reachable via transit within 90 minutes, and an 11.1 minute median wait.

And here’s the kicker: Denver is at the start of a blitz in transportation investment, with new plans in the works to add additional miles of rail and BRT. In other words, while DART has reached one of its huge milestone accomplishments – touching DFW airport – it is still a scarily usable system that is being outpaced by western, car-centric cities with similar urban density (Denver metro area density is 3698 per square mile, Dallas density is 3645 per square mile). These stats reflect more than the inadequacy of DART’s light rail system (notice how even in its infant stage, Denver manages to get a loop in the line, which makes the system much more usable). The real problem is DART’s inadequate bus system.

DART buses, as anyone who has ridden them knows, are impossible. They don’t come frequently enough, the routing is difficult to figure out, and many trips require at least one transfer. Mix transfers and infrequency and you pile on trip time, making the system scarcely convenient. Then add in the fact that DART’s bus system doesn’t feature some of the other amenities cities have employed to make them more usable, like stops that are designed to look like stations and designated lanes to cut down travel times. In short, DART has a bus system that, like its rail network, is spread wide and spread thin. It provides mediocre to poor service for everyone, rather than good, usable service to a majority of people.

Buses are not a sexy way to get around, but if a system is well-designed, it can be an effective one. For all of the cities on the top of the Brookings study, buses are a key aspect in their network. Now that DART has completed its extension to the airport, it’s time for the public transit authority to readdress and rethink its bus system. Yes, a BRT line in the burbs is a good idea. But it’s only a start. We need BRTs and improved bus routes all through the center part of the city. We just need a way to get around.

I think the first step is simple. Everyone on the DART board needs to take the bus to work every day for a month. Then, let’s see how much they want to push for change.